Why should I not report historical abuse to the police?
July 7, 2016 1:21 AM   Subscribe

I am coming to terms with some incidents of abuse in my childhood. I have an excellent treatment team. I am a logical, problem solving sort of person. I read various literature about the reporting of assault. Now, I feel confused. I do not understand why reporting these incidents to the police is something I should not do. What is it that stops people from doing this? I talked with the perpetrator, who remembers and agrees with my description of the incidents, but does not agree that they were criminal acts. I am reasonably confident that they were. I do not know if they would plead guilty were it to come to it.

Specific counter-arguments I have come across so far include:
- The police have more important crimes to investigate. My opinion is that it is up to the police to prioritise their workload. My not reporting the crime does not somehow free up the time for a victim of a more severe crime to come forward. The police may not have time to investigate and I absolutely prefer that they prioritise current abuse and more severe cases.
- The police will not do anything. This is possibly true. I do not know.
- The perpetrator may not be guilty due to lack of evidence, the statute of limitations, my being unreliable as witness, or some other defence. If ze pleaded not guilty I am not sure I would pursue it because ze has many times more resources than I do for legal advice and so on.
- "They are old now." (The perpetrator and their partner.)
- I ought to move on.
- "If that was a crime, then millions of people would be in prison", "the law is not gravity", "the law changes over time", "that is not all that ze is", "you are not judge and jury", "I will not be bullied by you", and more.

I am someone with a strong sense of justice. I would hope, and from what I have read I suspect, that in the unlikely event that there was a prosecution the perpetrator would not get a custodial sentence, something which I would not want. I would leave this to the courts. What my soul wants is my perpetrator to show remorse, and I do not think I will get this. Therefore, will reporting the assault to the police only serve to exacerbate my own trauma?

I feel so, so confused and overwhelmed. Addressing my emotions and keeping myself safe is are my first priorities. Regardless the replies here on Ask, I have no plans to run to the police station without first discussing the matter at length with my treatment team. I feel afraid to discuss this with them for fear of what they might suggest I do or not do. I fear feeling invalidated all over again.

I am in the UK, in case that makes a difference.

Thank you, Ask. If anyone has useful resources for someone in my situation, or for my husband who is doing his best to support me, I would be grateful for those as well.
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
There was a Dear Sugar podcast recently about family members pushing a survivor to confront an abuser about childhood abuse when she felt she didn't want to because it would change her relationship with her mother who is married to the abuser, and their advice to her was basically: do what you need to do for your own truth. It was a good thoughtful long podcast and might have some helpful insights for you.

To some extent, there's an argument to be made that speaking out for justice, even if that cry isn't met with justice, still matters to the other people watching in silence who are struggling with the same weight of abuse. All the people who speak up and file charges are pushing back slowly and steadily to say yes, abuse exists, yes, harm has been done, yes, justice is needed. Visibility counts for a lot. That's the social good.

But you need to know if seeking justice heals you or hurts you, and social good shouldn't come at the cost of your happiness and health.

How you get teated by the police depends so much on the individual cops. I've never dealt with UK cops. I've dealt with cops and healthcare people in different countries dealing with children, adults and sex crimes and it's been very strange because the range of professionalism and compassion has been quite wide. You should definitely talk to a lawyer before you talk to the police though.

The Sunflower: On the possibilities and limits of forgiveness
is a book recommended repeatedly about this, and restorative justice as a concept might help for searches. I haven't finished the whole book, it's intense reading, but the several essays I have read were very, very helpful. The essayists do not all agree to forgive in the usual happy-ever-after way. Instead, that forgiveness for them has limits, is hard won in a partnership or in some cases - can't be given, only accepted as a permanent loss.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 1:56 AM on July 7, 2016 [7 favorites]

What my soul wants is my perpetrator to show remorse, and I do not think I will get this.

They don't feel what they did was wrong (or at least not criminal), so I doubt you will get this. Even if they were compelled by the court to apologize, it wouldn't be remorse. If you can keep a dialog open with them, you might be able to bring them to an understanding that what they did was wrong. If you involve the police, they will almost certainly stop any communication with you.

Therefore, will reporting the assault to the police only serve to exacerbate my own trauma?

Would having the police be dismissive to your face set back your therapy? If they decline to do anything after you make the report? If the perpetrator tarnishes your good name (possibly publicly) or questions the veracity of your account?

At the very least, these are things to discuss with your treatment team before making any decisions. And I would second talking with a lawyer that can give advise on whether a crime was committed and what the police are likely to do if you report it at this time.
posted by Candleman at 3:42 AM on July 7, 2016 [4 favorites]

Maybe reporting would formalize your relationship with this truth; it would be a set thing, you would know that this was written and recorded somewhere, and this knowledge would allow you to focus more on other things.

It may not make sense given what most of us know about our world, but just communicating something -- writing it in a letter, or talking to another person -- can benefit the communicator greatly. Our relationships to other people are built into us, and are entirely the product of communication and feelings, so those things have real effects on us. If you feel a strong need to do this, to create a report, don't let others trivialize that need.
posted by amtho at 3:57 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

The most practical reason is that for other than serious sexual abuse, the UK has a very short "time limit" for criminal prosecution of child abuse (and even for you bringing a civil suit), and, depending on the specifics, it's highly likely the police CAN'T help you and CAN'T investigate or bring charges without a more "fresh" incident.

Do discuss with your treatment team this very practical limitation, and discuss it with a child abuse charity advocate or a lawyer who can help you understand your options. Sometimes it is possible to at least put a statement on file if your abuser has any ongoing contact with children and might reoffend, even if it's not possible to prosecute the acts against you. I think it's very important to understand the legal possibilities here - whether you can even report at this date, and whether any actions can be taken if you do report - before deciding what you WANT to do.

Some people in your situation who are time-barred from bringing suits on their own behalf find peace and closure as a volunteer to help other children through the trauma of testifying. (For others it is retraumatizing, discuss with your team and act accordingly.) But it is one option to help you feel like you can take back the control you lost and can help other children, even if you can't help the child you were.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 4:12 AM on July 7, 2016 [6 favorites]

I can't answer the question as asked, but in case it helps, these are bogus arguments:

"If that was a crime, then millions of people would be in prison"
No, that's not true. For people to be in prison, they also need to be reported and convicted. Doing something that is a crime is not enough.

"the law changes over time"
True, but lacks any relevance. Just because the law changes, that does not mean people can ignore it. It's still the law.

"that is not all that ze is"
True, and a strawman: you never said this is all that ze is. But it's one of the things ze is.

"you are not judge and jury"
Which is exactly why you might be handing this over (with any luck) to people who are exactly that.

"I will not be bullied by you"
Irrelevant, and possibly an attempt to bully you into silence. Reporting a crime is not bullying.
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:26 AM on July 7, 2016 [10 favorites]

There is a question of law. I was sexually assaulted as a child in New York State and by the time I had grown up and located the perpetrator, the statute of limitations as it stood in law at the time had expired. The offense was not prosecutable.

There is also the question of reality. Given the secrecy of abuse, these cases in both criminal and civil cases virtually always boil down to you said/they said. It can be devastating in a criminal case to hear the DA tell you there is not enough evidence to prosecute. On the off chance you actually do get a day in criminal court or choose to go to civil court, there is also the very real chance that your abuser will be found not guilty. Which vindicates their false protests of innocence and casts you as the liar.

Basically, if you have "a strong sense of justice" the experiences of many who have trod this path before you suggest that you're not going to find it through the law as it currently stands. "Exacerbating trauma" doesn't even begin to cover it, frankly.

I weighed all of that against my perpetrator's age, his access to children, where I was in terms of my own ability to advocate for myself in my recovery timeline, and my available support networks and I eventually decided to do... nothing. Which kicked off a whole period of "outside the law" justice fantasies, just for the record.

And then eventually, I genuinely moved on. I get that that is not good enough for some people making back of the envelope calculations about whether I "did it right" but we all do the best we can with what we have in a given moment. I offer myself compassion and have no regrets about the choices I made.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:48 AM on July 7, 2016 [11 favorites]

Only you and your therapy team can say whether reporting this to the police will exacerbate your trauma. Other than that, there is no reason not to report this to the police. At worst, it will be useless. At best, it will result in justice being done against the perpetrator. More likely, it will not result in any specific action against the perpetrator but it will add to the general pool of statistics related to child abuse. That dataset is notoriously plagued by under-reporting, which has historically been a major obstacle to setting better policy and creating a more informed discourse on the subject in general. If nothing else, your report would add incrementally to that pool of data and help people who want to use that data in the fight against child abuse.

None of the arguments against reporting that you put forward in your question strike me as particularly good ones. Who is making these arguments to you? They sound like the kinds of things that abusers and people defending abusers say. If you were abused by (for example) your brother, and (again, just for example) he and your mother are trying to persuade you against reporting the abuse, I wouldn't put much stock in their so-called reasons.

The only potentially valid reason I can think of would be if the abuser is indeed someone in your family (as most child abusers are) and reporting it would cause a rift within the family. That's something you need to weigh for yourself: would you be willing to allow yourself to be silenced in order to preserve peace within your family, knowing that the family members you'd be alienating are people who abused you and/or people who are defending your abuser at the cost of silencing and dismissing you? That's a serious question, but again one that can only be answered by you and your therapy team. Different people feel very differently about that issue.

If you are willing to provide a few more specifics about your current situation and the dynamics in play here, people might be able to give you advice and perspectives that are more relevant to your particular situation. Many people here are survivors of abuse, and the patterns of abuse are such that some of those survivors will no doubt have been through dilemmas very similar to the one you are in right now. They may be able to provide you with insights gained from their own experiences, which might be very valuable to you as you decide what you are going to do in your particular case.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:10 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

This is terribly vague. It could be anything from you being yelled at as a child to being forced into sex work. The rule of thumb here, I think, is that if they are at risk of hurting someone else, you must report it, or, if other possible other victims are out there suffering in silence, in can help to report it, to give them a voice. Your team can help you determine if this is something you should pursue.

The law cannot stop someone from being an asshole nor can it make an asshole sorry for something they did in the past. If this is only about you wanting justice for you, it is doubtful that you will get what you want by reporting to the police.
posted by myselfasme at 7:17 AM on July 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Therefore, will reporting the assault to the police only serve to exacerbate my own trauma?

Reporting the assault will likely exacerbate your own trauma. That's pretty much the norm for reporting assaults. Even in the best cause scenario, where you are taken seriously and not treated like a criminal, in order to do their jobs the police will need you to answer hard questions, and bring up old painful memories, and do that again and again. will be harsh/bring up hard questions. Plenty of "fresh" victims choose not to report for these reasons.

But, obviously, many victims do report, and the reasons can vary from "I want them punished," or, "I want to stop them from hurting someone else," or, "I want to get them the help they need," or, "I just want someone to listen to my story." Those are all good reasons, and, to some extent, when the system works well, they are things that the justice system can provide.

But these are not the things you want. What you want is:

What my soul wants is my perpetrator to show remorse, and I do not think I will get this.

And there's no guarantee that you will get this, even if the perpetrator is punished (which is something that you say you don't want).

So, my advice would be to find out what the process would be like, for you, if you did report this and attempt to press charges. Your treatment team might be able to help you there. You might also want to look to resources like NAPAC or SupportLine (I found these by googling "child abuse support resources uk" I don't know anymore about them).

Armed with some knowledge of what you are signing up for, you might be able to decide if that pain is worth it for what you are likely to achieve.

I'm so sorry. Good luck.
posted by sparklemotion at 8:33 AM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

I'm in the US, and further, I don't know what kind of abuse you suffered or whether you have any evidence, witnesses, etc., so I share this only as one anecdote of personal experience.

I pressed charges 20 years after the abuse. The statute of limitations for most crimes had passed, but the state in which the abuse took place had some exception clauses, including reports of sexual assault of a child.

The following years were full of grueling work: giving my (very personal!) testimony over and over again, pushing for the case to move forward (court dates were constantly being delayed), and generally feeling like I was the one on trial. Frankly, I felt like the authorities saw me as a brat and hoped I'd just go away. This was beyond devastating.

I had a strong case, and the perpetrator pled guilty in court, and even so was granted a year (!) before sentencing. Finally, for a bunch of bullshit reasons, the abuser basically got a slap on the wrist (mandatory group counseling). I'd never imagined that I wanted to decide his sentence, but I can't express how demoralizing it was to know that authorities knew he was guilty and still chose this outcome.

At least in this case, only victims' names were kept private (and even then, the rumor mill got the word out), which means that even though I set out to do something right and good, many people learned that speaking up does not guarantee justice. That is not my fault, but knowing that doesn't change how sick I feel about the message that reached victims of similar crimes in the community (i.e., "Don't bother. There's no protection anyway.").

Again, this was just my own experience, and sometimes criminals are penalized. By no means do I wish to silence you! All I wish to do is encourage you to find, with the help of your team, a) the most surefire ways of reaching a place of peace and healing, and b) ways to speak your truth without necessarily depending on the justice system to validate it.

I wish you all the best, and you have this internet stranger's full support however you choose to proceed.
posted by whoiam at 8:48 AM on July 7, 2016 [5 favorites]

Generally speaking, I try to err on the side of "Living well is the best revenge."

My situation is not your situation. It is mine and if I literally wrote a book, there would still be things you would not know. So what made sense for me and what makes sense for you are not necessarily at all related. But, here were some of my reasons for not reporting it:

I did not believe reporting it had any value for protecting anyone else.

I did not believe the individuals represented an ongoing threat (to me, the community, whatever).

I wanted to invest my time and energy in healing and living a full and happy life to the best of my ability.

I felt that investing time and energy in this would amount to letting them steal more of my life and giving them more opportunities to crap on me.

I did not feel it would lead to any kind of justice.

I did not want to be further tied to them in an ugly way in the minds of other people.

I made a choice that leaves me free to speak my truth and try to support other victims. The guilty parties are not going to jump into my discussions in online forums and accuse me of being a lying bitch because I have not publicly named them. They would be shooting themselves in the foot to do something like that. It would be a left-handed admission of guilt. They keep their mouths shut and leave me the hell alone out of self interest, and that gets me something I value highly: Left the hell alone by these assholes.

So, I have the things I value: Freedom to be supportive of other victims in the here and now without anyone casting doubt on my story, freedom to tell as much or as little as I choose, when and where I choose, and freedom to get on with my life and be left the hell alone by people who did something terrible to me a long time ago.

I chose to not keep picking at old wounds and to let them close. But I fully understand the impetus to try to draw the venom from the wound so it doesn't become septic. I can't tell you which choice makes sense for you.

posted by Michele in California at 11:25 AM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not saying don't report it. I'm not expressing an opinion either way. But one more factor you may want to consider is that in addition to the sense of control you might gain from reporting what happened to you, there's also a loss of control in that once you report it, you have very little say in what happens next.

You don't get to decide whether the police investigate or how or who they talk to or what questions they might ask those people or what they might tell those people about your case. You don't get to control whether charges are filed or what those charges are. You don't get to control whether there is a trial. You don't get to control whether or not you have to testify at the trial, or what questions you might be required to answer, or whether others in your life may be forced to testify. You don't get to decide guilty or not guilty. You don't get to decide the sentence, which could be anything from the slap on the wrist people have described above, to a prison sentence, which you said you didn't want. Finally, you definitely don't have any control over whether your abuser feels remorse, or says he's sorry, or continues to maintain that he did nothing wrong and lashes out at you or people you care about.

The police and prosecutors and judge may be willing to hear your opinion on those questions, or they may not. Your abuser almost certainly will not. But ultimately, you do not get to decide anything other than whether or not to report. So I think I would be thinking about whether the sense of control you get from reporting would be outweighed by the loss of control you have over everything that happens afterwards.
posted by decathecting at 1:17 PM on July 7, 2016 [2 favorites]

I skipped to the bottom to tell you this -- letting people bear witness is one of the most significant reasons that the legal system exists. It is powerful to be able to tell about a wrong that was done, so much so that it tends to prevent people from seeking vigilante justice on their own.

To the extent people in your life are discouraging you from reporting by minimizing what happened to you or blaming you for feeling it was unjust and wrong, ignore them. It is not for them to decide how you should feel about abuse which you are only now able to acknowledge happened to you.

I have to tell you, though, that the only power you have over being abused is to decide your own response to it. You cannot make a perpetrator feel remorse, and neither can the legal system. In fact, the inability to feel real empathy and regret is one reason perpetrators can engage in their crimes. Also, you cannot control the response of the legal system, which may be very disappointing. Depending on the law and the sensitivity of law enforcement where you are, they may either not be willing to take a report or unable to act on it.

Do what you feel will validate your own experience of this event. You could move ahead to try to make a report, write about what happened to you, confide in people you trust about it. or decide to leave this behind you. It is your call. Just remember you are not responsible for, nor able to control, how others will respond.

I also want to tell you how grieved I am that this happened to you, that it was not your fault but your perpetrator's, and that I am so impressed with the work you are doing to handle this trauma.
posted by bearwife at 4:12 PM on July 7, 2016 [3 favorites]

Mod note: From the OP:
Thank you, MeFites. You have helped this internet stranger. Thank you for your practical insights and for sharing your experiences. Above all, I feel validated and thus a little more grounded in the midst of all my bewilderment. I am glad I Asked.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane (staff) at 4:05 AM on July 8, 2016

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